Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 219 - Two Outlines In the Bag, or How To Write an Outline

It was a busy week for outlining. I used to deplore outlining. My ego didn't permit me to do them ("I like to surprise myself and see where the story goes"), and multiple drafts that continued to produce failure were never proof enough that I needed to remedy my ways. This month, though, I've been working on two projects - my spec demon thriller and a sci-fi collaboration with a known writer/director/actor we'll call W.A. - and there's no way I could have achieved any progress without outlines.

To add a disclaimer, if it sounds like I only just began outlining consistently for these two projects, that's far from true. I've been outlining for years. I started making it a regular part of my process sometime in college, and no longer do I attempt a script without an outline. It just proves to be too great a waste of time to do so.

At any rate, outlines are an interesting point of discussion between my friends in the League. How long should an outline be? How detailed? Does it need to feature ever single shot, or scene, or just sequences?

The outline (perhaps treatment is a better word, but I tend to use them interchangeably in my screenwriting vernacular) that W.A. presented me on our sci-fi collaboration was just over 21 full pages long, courier new. After I retooled it, which wound up taking a long time by the end, since I was stuck on a couple key beats, I sent him back an 8 page, Times New Roman document, no spaces between paragraphs, each point bulleted. What I emailed him wasn't the most detailed; I didn't state exactly how we first met each character or how certain ones died or whatnot, but their introductory and final beats were all clearly marked. Everything was broken up by beat, primarily, with small transitional scenes wrapped up for the most part in a larger chunk of text. 

I get very finicky about my outlines and how long each section is. I stick to traditional three act structure, breaking the script up into four equal parts (act one, act two part one, act two part two, and act three). If act three comes in a little under, then that's fine. I actually prefer a shorter third act, and mine typically wrap up in 15, rather than 25 pages. This is where I get particular - if act one has a total of 8 bullet points, then I aim for each subsequent section to have that exact number, no more, and no less. Generally, I hit this mark on the head naturally. For the demon thriller, each section had 11 beats; for the sci-fi one, eight. Act three is the exception, with perhaps three fewer beats/bullets than the rest. 

Both projects turned out well, I feel. W.A. and I have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the sci-fi outline, for which he suggested I watch a movie tonight. His comments so far seem mainly cosmetic, addressing a few set pieces that might feel familiar compared to other movies, and similar tweaks. We'll get into the details at our meeting. As for the demon thriller, the Leaguers who have read it have responded pretty well to it so far, with only a few minor suggestions. At this point, it sounds as if I'm good to move forward with actual pages on both. Can you imagine how much harder those pages would have been, had I not taken the time to outline? Just think - what stumped me for a few days in an outline and necessitated changing a few prior beats could have been a week's stalemate with pages in front of me and an immediate rewrite as a result.